Jim Crow (1877-1967?) was the way of life in the American South for about a hundred years after the black slaves were freed. It kept the races separate with blacks at the bottom. It fed on fear. The laws that it was built on were torn down in the 1950s and 1960s by Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr and others in the civil rights movement.
Many older white Americans are still Jim Crow racists in their thinking, but most younger whites are colour-blind racists.
Jim Crow was named after one of the main blackface characters from the old minstrel shows of the 1800s.
Under Jim Crow blacks (then called coloureds) went to separate schools, hospitals, waiting rooms and so on. They had to sit at the back of the bus. In most cases they were not allowed to eat with white people, much less marry them. They could not call white people by their first names – they always had to show them respect. Blacks could not vote in elections or hold public office. They could not even kiss in public.
If you did not know your place as a black person you were dealt with. First white people would break your windows or burn a cross in front of your house as a warning. If that was not enough, then they would come and lynch you: beat you up and then kill you by hanging you from a tree. That is what Billie Holiday sings about in “Strange Fruit”.
The Ku Klux Klan was behind much of this violence. They were white men dressed in white sheets with two eye holes and a point at top. They kept blacks down by striking terror into their hearts.
The sheriff and the judge in town knew what was going on but they looked the other way. Because blacks could not vote or stand for office, the government and courts were completely white. Even the juries.
In those days no white man was ever thrown in prison for raping a black woman, much less put to death. But a black man or even a black boy could turn up dead for so much as whistling at a white woman, like Emmett Till. His killers would walk free.
The stated reason for Jim Crow was to keep the white race pure. If blacks were equal to whites, then the races would mix. The South, which is mainly white, would become mainly brown. The white race would be destroyed.
Jim Crow laws even had the backing of the highest court in the land. In 1896 the Supreme Court said that it was not unjust to separate blacks from whites so long as everything was kept equal. Only in 1954 did it come to see that in practice separate meant unequal. In 1967 it said blacks could marry whites.
Jim Crow as law was now dead. But, as we saw in 2006 in Jena, it still seems to live on in the hearts of some white people.